Category Archives: recession

Looking Back on Barack

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At the end of his time in office Barack Obama merits an enumeration of some of his many accomplishments.   The recollection should start as he started, on January 20, 2009: the pilot taking the cockpit just when the plane was in an uncontrolled dive.

The circumstances were the most adverse faced by any new president in many decades.  Two ill-conceived and ill-executed foreign wars were underway, which had done nothing to bring to justice the mastermind of September 11, 2001.  He inherited an economy that was in free-fall, whether measured by the seizing up of finance markets, the fall in GDP, or the hemorrhaging of employment.  (The rate of job loss was running ran at 800,000 per month.)  True, Franklin Roosevelt inherited the Great Depression and Abraham Lincoln took office just as the Civil War broke out.   But what other president has come in facing both an economic crisis and a national security crisis?

The rapid policy response to the economic crisis included — in addition to aggressive and innovative monetary easing by the Federal Reserve — the Obama fiscal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by the Democratic Congress in February 2009) and rescue programs for the financial system and the auto industry.  Republicans were near unanimous in opposing the stimulus. And almost everybody was critical of the rescue programs – either urging nationalization of the banks and auto firms, on the one hand, or urging letting them go out of existence on the other.  There was and is insufficient recognition of how the Obama Administration succeeded, against all odds, at making the middle path work:  jobs were saved, while shareholders and managers suffered consequences of their mistakes  and the government got its money back after the recovery.

Most importantly, the free-fall ended promptly.  The timing and clarity of the turnaround is much more visible than one would think by listening to debates on what was the right counterfactual to evaluate the effect of Administration policies.  Economic output in the last quarter of 2008 had suffered a shattering 8.2 % p.a. rate of decline and job loss had been running at more than 600,000 per month.  Output and employment began to level out almost immediately after the February stimulus program.  The bottom of the recession came in June 2009; output growth turned positive in the next quarter.  Job creation turned positive early in 2010 and employment growth subsequently went on to set records all the way through the end of Obama’s time in office, adding more than 15 million jobs.

By the last half of Obama’s second term, the unemployment had fallen by half, to below 5% (2015 and 2016), wages were rising (by 2.9% nominal over the 12 months to Dec. 2016); and real median family income was finally growing too (by a record 5.2% in the most recently reported year, with lower-income groups advancing even more).

It is certainly true that the recovery was frustratingly long and slow.  Reasons include the depth and financial nature of the 2007-08 crash and the early reversal of the fiscal stimulus after the Republicans took back the Congress in the 2010 election and blocked Obama’s further efforts.   2011-14 are the years when the economy really could have used infrastructure spending and (the right) tax cuts.  But it would seem that Republicans only support fiscal stimulus when they are the ones in the White House — including when the economy is no longer in recession.

Obama’s other two biggest accomplishments in those first two years before the Congress starting blocking everything he tried were the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  In both cases, the reforms would have been better without a succession of steps by the opposition party to weaken them, both at the stage of passing the legislation and subsequently.

But each of those important reforms nonetheless succeeded in moving the country more clearly in the right direction than most people realize.  Dodd-Frank in a variety of ways helped make less likely a repeat of the 2007-08 financial crisis. Among other things, it increased transparency for derivatives, raised capital requirements for banks, imposed additional regulations on “systemically important” institutions, and, per the suggestion of Senator Elizabeth Warren, established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  Obamacare has succeeded in giving health insurance to 20-million-plus Americans who lacked it (for example, due to pre-existing conditions) and the cost of health care contrary to most predictions and perceptions slowed noticeably.

In the area of foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were  intractable.   But the President made the tricky decisions that resulted in the elimination of Osama bin Laden (a goal in which George W. Bush had lost interest, in his eagerness to invade Iraq).  In 2015, just as the press was saying Obama was a lame duck, he achieved a string of foreign policy successes: a much-needed nuclear agreement with Iran, normalization of relations with Cuba, agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and important progress to address global climate change via a breakthrough with China.

Needless to say, the man who assumes the Presidency this month has said he will reverse most of these initiatives, if not all.  In some cases, he will do exactly that. TPP is certainly dead, at least for the time being.  (And four years from now will probably be too late to revive it, as East Asian countries may by then have responded to America’s withdrawal from the region by joining China’s trade grouping instead.)

In other cases, real-world constraints will make it harder for Mr. Trump to translate crowd-pleasing sound-bites into reality.  Repealing Obamacare is apparently top of the list.  But the Republicans are likely to be stymied by the absence of an alternative that does not take health insurance away from those 20 million Americans nor raise the net cost.  Some important innovations, such as the switch to electronic patient record-keeping and more emphasis on preventative care, are bound to survive in any case.  Perhaps the eventual outcome will be relatively minor changes in the substance of the Affordable Care Act, together with a new name – the analog of building a big beautiful wall on a quarter-mile of the Mexican border as a sort of stage set suitable for photo opportunities.

Similarly, it is hard to see how pushing harder on China would produce desirable results.  To take the most ironic example of ill-informed policy positions, if the Chinese authorities were to acquiesce to Mr. Trump’s demands that it stop manipulating its exchange rate, its currency would depreciate and its competitiveness would improve.

Similarly, if the Administration tries to carry out its promise to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran, it will quickly find that US sanctions are ineffective without the participation of our allies.  Iran could rapidly renew and accelerate its nuclear program.  That is what happened with North Korea when George W. Bush essentially tore up the “agreed framework” upon taking office in January 2001.

Do the voters hold presidents accountable?   Bush made other serious mistakes in economic and foreign policy as well in those early years, of course, with the predictable consequences for the economy, budget, and national security.  Yet his poll numbers soared in his first term.

Conversely President Obama’s popularity sagged during much of his eight years.  Yet he leaves office with substantially higher poll ratings than most presidents at this stage and – unusually – with much higher ratings than his successor, let alone his predecessor at the end.  So apparently the person who occupies the White House does eventually receive the credit he is due for the intelligence of his policies and the content of his character.  It just takes longer than it should.

[A shorter version of this column appeared at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there.]

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Does the Economy Really Do Better Under Democratic Presidents?

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Hillary Clinton has been saying that the US economy does much better when a Democrat is president than when a Republican is.  When the press goes to fact-check the claim, they can be forgiven for having  a presumption that it can’t be 100 per cent true.  After all, if it were completely true, then wouldn’t we all already know it?

Well, there is no other way to say this: The claim is 100 per cent true.

The qualifier is that the president is only one of many influences of what happens to the economy.   Luck of course plays a big role.  Hillary’s speeches don’t include footnotes making this obvious point.  But that doesn’t justify a rating of only “half true” for Clinton’s claim, as some fact-checkers proclaim.  And the surprising reality is that the difference in economic performance between Democratic and Republican presidents is sufficiently systematic that it cannot be statistically attributed to mere chance alone.

The gap in economic performance

She says (e.g., June 5, 2016), “It is a fact that the economy does better when we have a Democrat in the White House.”  What is the evidence for this claim?

A timely and careful statistical study was published in April in the American Economic Review [106(4): 1015-45] by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson of Princeton University:  “Presidents and the US Economy: An Econometric Exploration.”   The starting point, the central fact, is that the rate of growth of GDP has averaged 4.3 percent during Democratic administrations versus 2.5 under Republicans, a remarkable difference of 1.8 percentage points.  This is postwar data, covering 16 complete presidential terms—from Truman through Obama.  If one goes back further, before World War II, to include Hoover and Roosevelt, the difference in growth rates is even stronger.

The results are similar regardless whether one assigns responsibility for the first quarter of a president’s term (or the first few quarters), to him or to his predecessor.

Of course many political actors in Washington influence the course of events.  Blinder and Watson find that the economy does a bit better if the Democrats have appointed the Federal Reserve chairman or if they control the Congress.  But these conditions are not necessary for the central result:  it is the party of the presidency that makes the big difference.

Furthermore, over the 256 quarters in these 16 presidential terms, the US economy was in recession for 1.1 quarters during the average Democratic presidency and 4.6 quarters during the Republican terms, a startlingly big difference.  These gaps in performance are highly significant statistically.  The odds that they are the result of mere chance are 1 in a 100 or less.

The two Princeton economists find superior results by other measures as well, including the change in unemployment during the president’s term and the performance of the stock market.  The unemployment rate fell by 0.8 percentage points under Democrats on average and rose by 1.1 under Republicans, a significant gap of 1.9 percentage points. Perhaps better known than the other economic statistics, returns in the S&P 500 have been higher under Democrats:  8.4% versus 2.7 % for a differential of 5.7% (though this differential is not as significant statistically, because stock market prices are so volatile).  Also the structural budget deficit is smaller under Democratic presidents (1.5% of potential GDP) than Republicans (2.2%). But the authors mainly focus on GDP.

Could it be chance?

One does not need to understand fancy econometrics to understand how unlikely it is that chance alone could have produced such big differences in outcomes.  Economists use sophisticated econometrics when publishing an article in the AER, the top peer-reviewed journal; but sometimes simpler calculations are more effective.  Consider some very simple facts, which anyone can easily check for themselves.  The last four recessions all started while a Republican was in the White House. If the chances of a recessions starting during a Democrat’s term were equal to that of a Republican’s term, the odds of getting that outcome would be (1/2)(1/2)(1/2)(1/2), i.e., one out of 16.  Just like the odds of getting “heads” on four out of four coin-flips.  Not especially likely.

Still, four data points constitute a very small sample.  So let’s go back ten business cycles.  By my count nine of the last ten recessions have started under Republican presidents.   The odds of the Democrats doing that well just by chance are about 1 in a hundred.  (Anyone can easily check the recession dates for themselves, at the site of the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee.)

An even more startling fact emerges from a review of the last 8 times when an incumbent from one party handed over the White House to a president from the other party.  In four of these transitions, a Democrat was succeeded by a Republican; each time the growth rate went down from one term to the next.  In four of the transitions, a Republican was succeeded by a Democrat; each time the growth rate went up.  No exceptions, as Blinder and Watson point out.  Eight out of eight.  What are the odds of this happening by chance?   The answer is the same as the odds of getting heads on 8 coin tosses in a row:    ½ times itself 8 times, which is 1 out of 256.  I.e., ¼ of 1 percent.  Very unlikely.

Fact-checkers

Given the strength of these results, it is surprising that Hillary Clinton’s claims have been rated as only “half true” by some media, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitFact. Its source appears to be a particular fact-checker in Arizona.  (I feel a personal stake in setting the record straight, because I am inexplicably quoted as supporting this finding that the claim is only “half-true.”  I had told the Arizona interviewer that the claim of a performance gap was clearly true, even though finding the gap was not the same as proving its cause.)  The “false balance” syndrome strikes again.

The first half of the Blinder-Watson paper reports the aforementioned numbers showing the difference in how the economy has behaved under the two parties. This difference seems incontrovertible.  The second half of the paper tries econometrically to identify causes for the gap.  Here the authors are less successful, because it is inherently a much harder task.  The precise reasons  for the surprisingly big differential are unknown.

They find some evidence of four or five factors that may together explain 56% of the gap between growth rates under the two parties:  oil shocks, productivity growth, defense spending, foreign economic growth, and consumer confidence.  It is impossible to know whether some of these five factors may have been influenced by the policies of US presidents.  We know still less about the channels that might explain the remaining 44% of the gap.  Thus it is impossible to say to what extent specific policies adopted by presidents are responsible for the difference in economic performance.

This is the reason that the fact-checkers give for rating Hillary’s claim as only half true.  But her claim was that the gap in performance exists, not what were the specific causal channels.  The claim that a gap exists is not the same thing as a claim to have identified the policies that contributed to the gap, let alone a claim that they explain the entire gap.

The fact-checkers also make much of a finding by Blinder and Watson that, contrary to widespread assumptions, fiscal and monetary policies are not more “pro-growth” (i.e., expansionary) under Democrats than under Republican presidents, and therefore can’t explain any of the performance differential.  But, in the first place, presidents make lots of policy decisions beyond fiscal and monetary stimulus, including energy, anti-trust, regulation, trade, labor, foreign policy, and much more.   There is no way to test econometrically this myriad of policies.

In the second place, leading Republican politicians claim to believe that easy money and high spending hurt the economy rather than helping it.   At least, they claim to believe that when they are out of office, and especially if the economy is weak, as in the post-2008 environment.  (When they are in office, they tend to find that they rather like spending money, even if the economy doesn’t need it.  Remember, for example, when Vice President Richard Cheney reportedly said “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”   It should not be news that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush cut taxes and increased spending, whereas Bill Clinton acted to bring the budget deficit down.)

Regardless, let’s be clear about the central finding.  Hillary Clinton’s claim that the economy does better on average when a Democrat is in the White House is true, judging from past history.  And the difference is large enough that it cannot be attributed to pure chance.

[A shorter version of this column appears in Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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Fiscal Education for the G-7

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As the G-7 Leaders gather in Ise-Shima, Japan, on May 26-27, the still fragile global economy is on their minds.  They would like a road map to address stagnant growth. Their approach should be to talk less about currency wars and more about fiscal policy.

Fiscal policy vs. monetary policy

Under the conditions that have prevailed in most major countries over the last ten years, we have reason to think that fiscal policy is a more powerful tool for affecting the level of economic activity, as compared to monetary policy.  The explanation can be found in elementary macroeconomics textbooks and has been confirmed in recent empirical research:  the effects of fiscal stimulus are not likely to be limited, as in more normal times, by driving up interest rates, crowding out private demand, running into capacity constraints, provoking excessive inflation, or overheating in other ways.  Despite the power of fiscal policy under recent conditions, economists continue to lavish more attention on monetary policy.  Why?

Sometimes I think the honest reason we economics professors are attracted to monetary policy is that central bankers tend to be like us, with PhDs, and to hold nice conferences.

The reason that one usually hears, however, is that fiscal policy is “politically constrained.”   This is an accurate statement, but not a good reason for us to give up on it.  Indeed, if the political process gets fiscal policy wrong, which it does, that is all the more reason for economists to offer their contributions.

Of course if one is a central banker, or is advising a central banker, then one must concentrate on the job at hand, which is monetary policy.  But precisely because there is a limit to what central bankers can say about fiscal policy, there is more need for the rest of us to do it.

The heyday of activist fiscal policy was 50 years ago. The position “we are all Keynesians now” was attributed to Milton Friedman in 1965 and to Richard Nixon in 1971.  In the late 20th century, most advanced countries managed to pursue countercyclical fiscal policy on average: generally reining in spending or raising taxes during periods of economic expansion and enacting fiscal stimulus during recessions. The result on average was to smooth out the business cycle (as Keynes had intended).  It was the developing countries that tended to follow procyclical or destabilizing policies.

Leaders forget how to do counter-cyclical fiscal policy in the US, Europe and Japan

After 2000, however, some countries broke out of their familiar patterns. Too many political leaders in advanced countries pursued procyclical budgetary policies: they sought fiscal stimulus at times when the economy was already booming, thereby exaggerating the upswing, followed by fiscal austerity when the economy turns down, thereby exacerbating the recession.

Consider mistakes in fiscal policy made by leaders in three parts of the world — the US, Europe, and Japan.

US President George W. Bush began the century by throwing away the large fiscal surpluses that he had inherited from Bill Clinton, and then continued with big tax cuts and rapid spending increases even during 2003-07, as the economy reached its peak.  It was during this period that Vice President Cheney reportedly said “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”

Predictably, the rising debt left the government feeling less able to enact fiscal stimulus when it was really needed, after the Great Recession hit in December 2007.  At precisely the wrong time, Republicans “got religion” deciding that deficits were bad after all.  Thus when President  Barack Obama took office in January 2009, with the economy in freefall, the opposition party voted against his fiscal stimulus.  Fortunately they failed then, and the stimulus was able to make a big contribution to reversing the freefall in the economy in 2009.  But having regained the Congress in 2011, they did succeed in blocking Obama’s further attempts to stimulate the still-weak economy for three years. The Republicans appear to be consistently procyclical.

Greece is the “poster boy” of an advanced country that unhappily switched to a systematically procyclical fiscal policy after the turn of the current century.  Its first mistake was to run excessive budget deficits during the expansionary period 2003-08 (like the Bush Administration).  Then, as if operating under the theory that “two wrongs make a right,” Greece was induced after its crisis hit to adopt tight austerity in 2010, which greatly worsened the fall in GDP. The goal was to restore its debt/GDP ratio to a sustainable path; but instead the ratio rose at a sharply accelerated rate, because of the fall in GDP.

Europeans suffer even more than other countries from basing their budget plans on official forecasts that are unnecessarily biased, which can lead to procyclical fiscal policy.   Before 2008, not just Greece, but all euro members were overly optimistic in their forecast and so at times “unexpectedly” exceeded the 3% ceilings on their budget deficits.  After 2008, qualitatively similar stories of procyclical fiscal contraction, leading to falling income and accelerating debt/GDP, also held in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

The native land of austerity philosophy is, of course, Germany.  The Germans had (reluctantly) gone along with an agreement at the London G-20 Leaders Summit of April 2009 that the US, China, and other major countries would expand demand in order to address the Great Recession.  But when the Greek crisis hit at the end of that year, the Germans reverted to their deeply held beliefs in fiscal rectitude.

At first the IMF went along with the other members of the troika in believing — or at least pretending to believe — that fiscal discipline in the European periphery countries would not greatly damage their GDPs and thus could restore their debt/GDP ratios to sustainable paths.  But in January 2013, Fund Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard released a paper that was widely interpreted as a mea culpa.  It concluded that fiscal multipliers were much higher than the IMF (among other forecasters) had thought, suggesting that the austerity programs might have been excessive.  This conclusion was based on a statistical finding that the countries which had attempted the biggest fiscal retrenchment in response to the crisis turned out to experience the most damage to GDP relative to what the IMF forecasters had expected. Today, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde explains to the Germans that Greece cannot achieve the elusive path of a sustainable debt/GDP ratio if it is not given further debt relief and is instead told to run primary budget surpluses of 3 ½ percent of GDP.

Now to Japan, host of this week’s G-7 meeting.  In April 2014, even though the economy had been so weak that the Bank of Japan had been pursuing aggressive quantitative easing, Prime Minister Abe went ahead with a planned increase in the consumption tax (from 5% to 8%).  As many had predicted, Japan immediately went back into recession.  Even though the first arrow of Abenomics, the monetary stimulus, had been fired appropriately, it was evidently less powerful than the second arrow, fiscal policy, which unfortunately had been fired in the wrong direction.

Prime Minister Abe has indicated that he is sticking with his plan to go ahead with a further rise in the consumption tax (to 10%), scheduled for April 2017.  It is easy to see why Japanese officials worry about the country’s huge national debt.  But, as near-zero interest rates signal, creditworthiness is not the current problem; weakness in the economy is.  A more effective way of addressing the long-run sustainability of the debt is to announce a 20-year path of very small annual increases in the consumption tax, calculated so as to demonstrate to investors that the ratio of debt to GDP will come down in the long term.

Developing countries

Not all is bleak on the country scoreboard of cyclicality.  Some developing countries did achieve countercyclicalfiscal policy after 2000.  They took advantage of the boom years to run budget surpluses, pay down debt and build up reserves, which allowed them the fiscal space to ease up when the 2008-09 crisis hit.  Chile is the poster boy of those who “graduated” from procyclicality. Others include Botswana, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Korea.  China’s 2009 stimulus was very countercyclical.

Unfortunately some, like Thailand, who achieved countercyclicality in the last decade, have suffered backsliding since then.  Brazil, for example, failed to take advantage of the renewed commodity boom of 2010-11 to eliminate its budget deficit, which explains much of the mess it is in today now that commodity prices have fallen.

Politicians everywhere might improve their game if they re-read their introductory macroeconomics textbooks.

[This is an extended version of a column appearing at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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